So I take the train from Prague to Pribram, fifty miles to the south.
It’s a beat-up old train, shabby carriages passing through crumbling
stations, nothing like the slick international service going through to
Vienna or Berlin. Prague is filled with tourists, but there are none here.
With the exception of me, the train is loaded with locals going about
their weekday business, none of them heading for the gulag.
We pull away from the glass-and-boutique Central Station, travel
through the outskirts of the city, and then, within twenty minutes, seem
to have slid decades back in time. Now we are traveling through a post-industrial zone, the horizon dominated by shabby but still-inhabited
panelacky, those rigidly uniform Communist-era housing blocks named
for their precast concrete panels. Thrown up after World War II as emergency structures, they were designed to last for two generations at most.
But they endure, home to a third of Czechs even now. From the train
windows they loom as immense, still-functioning monuments to an oppressive past.
As an American born in the Cold War era, I am, irrationally, amazed
to see evidence that Communism was real. Considering all we were told
about Communists—about their wild-eyed and unworkable economic
schemes, their paranoid surveillance, their insane punishments—it
sometimes seemed that the Communists had come out of a comic book,
Was it all real? Or was our Cold War propaganda a little over the top?
Arriving in the Czech Republic as a Fulbright Commission teaching fellow, I am determined to see as much of the shadow left by the
Communists as I can before I encounter my graduate students. In their
midtwenties, they never experienced the actual Communists, who left
power in 1989. But they were born into a world that had been shaped by
the party for the preceding forty years. To get to know them—to engage
in the cultural exchange that is my charge—I have to do my best to understand what has been experienced here.
At the Pribram station there’s no public transit, at least not any discernible by me with my fifteen or so words of Czech. But there is a kid in
a blue-and-green beater in front of the station, and I write out the words
Pamatnik Vojna in my notebook. He nods. Sure. The former Vojna
prison camp, now preserved as a memorial.
As we drive the four miles, I stare at the back of his head. I would give
a lot to know what’s in there, what he knows about the place we are going, what he thinks about it. Of course, he’s too young to have witnessed